October 21, 2005

Wilma targets Mexico’s Yucatan resorts

By Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Lashing wind and rain pounded
Mexican beach resorts on Friday and thousands of tourists
hunkered down in shelters to escape Hurricane Wilma, which was
hammering Caribbean resorts on its way to densely populated
southern Florida.

Heavy rain was coming down in diagonal sheets and howling
winds were buckling sturdy trees.

Tourists were evacuated from luxury beachfront hotels all
along Mexico's "Maya Riviera" coast and the normally calm,
turquoise Caribbean seas heaved and Wilma dumped rain on
streets patrolled by soldiers ordering people to take cover.

Described by forecasters as extremely dangerous and at its
height later on Friday expected to send a 7 to 11-foot (2.2 to
3.4-meter) surge of water over the coast, Wilma killed 10
people in mudslides in Haiti earlier in the week.

Cuba evacuated 220,000 people and residents of southern
Florida stocked up on drinking water and gas to prepare for
Wilma, which hammered the coasts of Mexico and Belize with
winds of around 150 mph (240 kph).

Mexican authorities said close to 22,000 tourists and
locals residents had been evacuated from low-lying coastal
areas. In one gymnasium shelter in Cancun, 1,600 people spent
the night on mattresses on the floor. One local entrepreneur
sold T-shirts, perhaps prematurely, with the logo: "I survived
Hurricane Wilma," at $10 each.

About 100 bored-looking foreign tourists stood talking in
groups under chandeliers in the cavernous marble lobby of the
Hotel Royal Porto Real, near the sea front in Playa del Carmen,
another resort just south of Cancun.

"It was meant to be the fortnight holiday of a lifetime,"
said 28-year-old Simon Hayes, one of four friends on holiday
from Britain. "This is not how I envisaged it working out."

Conditions were far tougher for hundreds of migrant
construction workers, mostly from the impoverished southern
state of Chiapas, who were evacuated from temporary digs in
outdoor camps and building sites.


In a kindergarten near Playa del Carmen's beachfront, 50
men sat on the concrete floor of a classroom, too cramped for
them to lie down, digging into cans of donated tuna fish with
their hands. "This sucks," said Juan Cruz Perez, a 21-year-old
migrant metal worker from the Gulf state of Tabasco.

Still, at one hotel doubling as a shelter because of its
distance from the beachfront, Welshman Lee Watkins praised the
Mexican emergency services and local people for their help in
the evacuation.

"They got us out in plenty of time and as soon as we got
here, the food started coming," said Watkins, a sales manager.
"Mexican people have come here to cook for us.

"It's fantastic."

Wilma became the strongest Atlantic storm on record in
terms of barometric pressure on Wednesday. It weakened to a
Category 4 hurricane, then picked up again as it headed for
Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where it was expected to hit around
noon on Friday.

At 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT), Wilma was 55 miles southeast of
Cozumel, Mexico, and was moving toward the north-northwest at
roughly 6 mph (9 km/h), according to the U.S. National
Hurricane Center. Forecasters said it would strike densely
populated southern Florida late on Sunday.

The hurricane season has six weeks left and has already
spawned three of the most intense storms on record. Hurricane
experts say the Atlantic has entered a period of heightened
storm activity that could last 20 more years.

Wilma was expected to miss Gulf of Mexico oil and gas
facilities battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August
and September, but Florida's orange groves were at risk.

The island of Cozumel, one of the world's best spots for
scuba diving, faced a possible direct hit.

Authorities in the Keys, connected to mainland Florida by a
single road, ordered tourists out and were considering telling
the islands' 80,000 residents to evacuate.

Wilma was expected to bring 10 to 20 inches of rain through
Sunday across parts of western Cuba and the Yucatan, the
hurricane center reported, with isolated areas of mountainous
western Cuba receiving up to 40 inches of rain.

(Additional reporting by Greg Brosnan in Playa del Carmen
and Jane Sutton in Miami)